Tulia Picking Up the Pieces
Finally, Justice In Tulia
Prosecutors, conceding that they made a crucial mistake by relying solely
on the uncorroborated testimony of an undercover officer in a 1999 drug sweep, overturned the convictions of 38 people, almost
all of them black, who were caught in the arrests that have scarred this town.
The extraordinary turnabout followed hearings in which the undercover officer,
Thomas Coleman, and many other witnesses testified about his troubled law enforcement career, unorthodox methods, pervasive
errors, combustible temperament and apparent racism.
But defense lawyers said the prosecutions were fueled by more than one
unreliable officer. The prosecutions, they said, were the consequence of poisonous small-town race relations, a misguided
desire to claim victories at any cost in the war on drugs and a legal system in which poor defendants did not have a fighting
"It is established by all parties and approved by the court that Tom Coleman
is simply not a credible witness under oath," Chapman said. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest court
for criminal matters, is not required to accept the parties' request or Chapman's recommendation. The court could reject the
recommendation in some or all of the cases, overturn the convictions outright or order new trials.
But given their concessions about Coleman, prosecutors are unlikely to
pursue retrials even if the appeals court allows them.
West Texas Drug Bust Raises Questions Of Racial Prejudice, Officer's Credibility
The Tulia 46 may finally see justice served -- but the damage of the national
drug war isn't anywhere near being undone.
Tulia Picking Up the Pieces of Shattered Justice
November 16, 2003 TULIA,
TX -- The Statue of Liberty greets me as I drive into Tulia on U.S. 87. She doesn't know that Tulia scares me
more than Jasper.
Say the name Jasper, and the image of a screaming man being dragged to his death on a dark East Texas
road is pulled across people's minds.
Mention Tulia and it's likely to invoke little more than a furrowed brow
and vacant gaze. If its significance is known, it's doubtful that anyone will associate it with the Statue of Liberty. Yet
she salutes me with her torch.
It's actually a green and weathered 6-foot replica of the statue that stands
in front of a motel named Liberty Suites. She was there June 16 to welcome Freddie Brookins Jr. and 12 other defendants who
returned home on a bus after spending years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.
It's why they were taken from their homes that Tulia scares me more than
Jasper. Not the tiny town itself, hidden in the Panhandle between Amarillo and Lubbock. With its brick streets and more than
two dozen churches, Tulia is an economically depressed town with closed and boarded-up businesses and where at 10 o'clock
on a Friday morning, its pulse is hardly livelier than at 10 o'clock Sunday night.
Nor is it the people of whom I'm wary, people who are polite and who easily
shake your hand and engage you in conversation.
Tulia scares me because this community's tragedy of people arrested, convicted
and sentenced for things they didn't do could just as easily happen to me. Or you. And it's more likely to happen than our
being victims of a motorized lynching.
Values we hold dear to our national soul, enshrined in our laws and engraved
on our public conscience civil liberties, the presumption of innocence, fair trials were shattered in Tulia, and it's now
up to this farming town of less than 6,000 to pick up the pieces.
The danger of picking up broken pieces is in cutting yourself, but Tulia
has been cut enough and already has bled too much.
Tulia is Spanish for "destined for glory." But Tulia's name is a mistake.
When it was settled in the 19th century, it was supposed to be named after nearby Tule Creek, but a misspelling changed its
name. The mistake has outlasted the now anonymous man who made the clerical error.
With fortune and reflection, Tulia's name will outlast that of Tom Coleman,
the strange and devious man who did so much to tarnish its name and the names of its citizens. In another town, by mistake
or malice, the tarnished name could be mine. It could be yours.
The people of Tulia can't be blamed for bringing Coleman into their midst.
The fault lies with those who hired him as an undercover agent for the Panhandle Regional Narcotics Trafficking Task Force,
despite the soiled reputation he'd earned in previous law enforcement jobs.
Nor can the people of Tulia be blamed for the infamous pre-dawn raid on
July 23, 1999, in which 46 Tulians, 39 of them black, were arrested. That raid led to 38 of them being sentenced to prison
with no evidence that Coleman actually made the drug buys from the defendants that he claimed.
On Aug. 22, Gov. Rick Perry issued pardons to the defendants. Coleman has
been indicted on three counts of perjury.
What the people of Tulia must ask themselves is why so many of them were
willing to believe the worst about fellow citizens with whom they'd lived for years. Why would they take the word of a stranger
who had lived among them for only 18 months?
Like Jasper in its moment of infamy, Tulia deserves the opportunity to
search its soul for answers. When I visited Jasper on Easter weekend in 1999, between the trials of the men who murdered James
Byrd Jr., I was impressed with the people's willingness to understand how this crime could happen in their community and to
talk openly about it. Blacks and whites admitted to working harder at a civility they'd taken for granted, but the most powerful
comment I heard came from Willis Webb, publisher and editor of the Jasper Newsboy:
"We all have to ask ourselves, what little have I done that might have
contributed to this that allowed this to happen."
Last month, I visited Tulia. Before my trips to both Jasper and Tulia,
there were warnings from friends to be careful. The warnings were both playful and serious, but had I been white I doubt anyone
would have been concerned about my safety.
I understood. Race played a role in both crimes. I'm a black man. Most
of the Tulia defendants were black males. Many people, including Jeff Blackburn, the Amarillo attorney who was the lead defense
counsel for all the defendants, believe that the drug sting was an attempt to get blacks, about 8 percent of the town's population,
out of Tulia.
Tulia scares me more than Jasper, because the threat of physical violence
doesn't frighten me nearly as much as the possibility of being falsely accused and convicted of something I didn't do and
having people believe the charges.
The brutality in Jasper and the injustices in Tulia were so egregious as
to transcend race. In Tulia, especially, what happened isn't simply an example of one rogue lawman turned loose on one community,
but what can transpire when people become lax in safeguarding their constitutional rights and liberties. What happens when
they neglect to assume responsibility for neighbors whose rights and freedoms have been violated?
In Tulia, it doesn't matter now what Vicki Fry's ethnicity was when she
was wrongfully arrested. What's important is that a woman who was seven months pregnant lost her baby days after her arrest.
I'm not one of those who sees the government as some demonic entity dispatching
its agents in black helicopters to burst into the homes of law-abiding citizens and ferry them away into the darkness. Still,
that's what happened to Freddie Brookins Jr.
On the morning of the raid in Tulia, Brookins was sleeping when his wife
woke him to tell him someone was knocking on the door of their duplex in Tulia. He wrapped a bed sheet around himself and
went to the door. When law officers brought him out of the house, they stripped him of the sheet he was covering himself with,
revealing his nakedness in front of bright lights and television cameras.
"Kids and everybody were outside," Brookins says. "Every corner you looked
at they (law enforcement officers) were running into houses."
Now 26, Brookins spent 31/2 years in prison for something he didn't do.
On the jury were people who'd known him since he was a child. "Everyone in the jury, I knew," he says. "One guy was my basketball
coach when I was a kid. I spent the night at his house, even as a teenager. His boys have spent the night with me. This man
knew me, and he still convicted me."
Inside Rip's Country Grill, Brookins walks by an older white man who shakes
his hand and talks to him for a couple of minutes. "That's Darrell Stapp," he says. "He's good people."
Near the Swisher County Archives and Museum on Southwest Second Street,
I met a white woman who'd served on one of the juries. She says she reluctantly voted to convict one of the defendants. But
that was before she knew about Coleman's duplicitous and criminal past.
"I'll never serve on a jury again," she says, not wanting her name used.
"Not if it's going to hurt people."
Alan Bean, a Methodist minister in Tulia who helped publicize the plight
of the "Tulia 46," believes that once the hurt caused by the sting operation is acknowledged, the town can move forward.
"Anytime that you can get people on both sides of the issue to sit down
at the table, it's positive," says Bean, referring to conversations now taking place. "If we can change the economic development
instead of who was right and wrong about Coleman, we're putting it behind us."
In the Jasper City Cemetery, the grave of James Byrd Jr. has a metallic
tomb in which someone, an entire town even, can see his or her reflection.
There is no similar monument in Tulia on which people can pause to reflect,
only the faces of living men and women and the pain they're trying to get over. It's only when all of Tulia's citizens see
each other and the promise of a future together that they'll bridge that pain.